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The True Meaning of Peace 

from the Chinese Literary Perspective


Tan Chung

The concept of ‘Peace’ in our modern civilization (should I say, Western civilization?) is the facade of war, dominated by the calculations of realpolitik. This English word originates from the French concept which denotes ‘agreement’ — agreeing to stop a conflict or war. When we refer to The Universal Dictionary of the English Language we find that the first notion of ‘peace’ is ‘cessation of, freedom from, strife, warfare’, and the second notion of it is ‘treaty of peace between hostile nations’. Even in the third notion, it is understood as ‘freedom from civil disorder, disturbance, agitation’ and ‘freedom from strife, controversy or agitation’. Only after these notions come ‘tranquillity, concord, mental calm, serenity of mind’. This European concept of peace (which is more or less universally accepted) is something similar to the Chinese word wu (its palaeographic form shows a combination of denoting ‘to stop’ and denoting ‘weapon’). This wu concept was to capture the joyous mood of the soldiers when they heard of the news of cease-fire (stopping the weapon). This was, in fact, the original Chinese word for ‘dance’. However, today we use the word for such connotations like ‘military’, ‘fight’, ‘fighting skill’ (as used in wushu, etc.) Like the case of ‘peace’ in the European cultural context, this Chinese concept of wu remains a facade of war. I may call this category of thinking the ‘red-eyed view of peace’.

In this paper I wish to present the green-eyed view of peace which originates from ‘Agroculture’. I have coined this word to avoid using the cumbersome formulation of ‘agriculture culture’. When humans came to this earth as a result of evolution, they started making stone weapons to hunt other animals for food. After many thousand years, these primitive hunters transformed themselves into two dominant cultural modes. Some began to tame the animals and graze them on grassland. Some of the animals were kept as their food, but other animals, particularly horses, were used for quick movement and fighting. They finished off the grass in one place and moved to another to graze. This approach amounted to the looting of Mother Earth. Also in the movement they clashed with other nomadic groups and practised the principle of ‘might is right’. Nomadic culture is essentially a hunter’s culture intoxicated in fighting, looting and warfare.

But there was another cultural mode of settling down in a place and start cultivating Mother Earth for subsistence. When Mother Earth’s generosity surpassed their level of subsistence, they domesticated wild animals and fed them — ultimately killing them for food. This mode is the agrocultural mode. Agroculture is a cultural mode that is meant to replace the hunter’s culture. Gone are the days when humans tiresomely and cruelly chased and killed other animals on the run. Agroculture is a relaxed mood, oriented in the spirit of peace. It is grown from Mother Earth, and endeared to Mother Earth. Earth is important to an agriculturist (so also an ‘agroculturist’) who cultivates the good earth under his feet and depends for his livelihood on it. Agroculture thrives on the exuberance of the planted growth, and avoids insensately looting the vegetation in the environment. Agroculture is eco-friendly.

To agroculture, peace is not an aftermath after war. It is an integral part of human existence. The concept of peace takes its birth with agriculture and agroculture. Peace, attachment to Mother Earth, friendship with ecology are essential ingredients for a good agrocultural life. Peace and agroculture are symbiotic. With agroculture there cannot be any concept of peace. For agroculture is a farewell to the hunter’s culture, a farewell to arms, a farewell to chasing others — be it a wild animal or a hostile human. The Western way of life has not completely said farewell to this hunter’s culture. Western table manners daily practised by the kings and queens, by civilians and soldiers, by the workers wearing white, blue or other coloured collars, by writers, film stars, poets, and so on involves cutting meat with a knife and taking it into the mouth with a fork almost exactly in the same fashion as a primitive hunter did thousands of years ago. But, those who have bid farewell to the hunter’s culture have long laid aside, and have long forgotten, knives and forks while eating. For thousands of years, the Indians have put cooked food on leaves and helped themselves with their fingers, while the Chinese have used chopsticks and spoons. These are symbols of agroculture, of non-violence — symbols of peace. For agroculture is born with peace just as peace is born with agroculture.

In this paper I would like to elaborate this concept of peace which has long been forgotten or ignored. As I am not so conversant with Indian agroculture, I shall concentrate on its Chinese counterpart to bring some fresh air to this Unesco-sponsored conference deliberating on the ‘Culture of Peace’.


What I have said a little while ago seems to have idealized agroculture. Yes, what agroculture is meant to be is one thing, and what reality that agroculture has gone through is another. As agroculture came out from the womb of the hunter’s culture, it often reflected the brutal appearance of its mother culture as well. Humans have arrived on our earth to be nobler creatures than brutes, yet, just as Mencius (372?-289 bc) observed: ‘How little is the difference between humans and the brutes!?’1 To carry Mencius’ thinking to its logical end, I dare say that he would not consider war decent human behaviour. Mencius and his master Confucius (551-479 bc) talked about ren (the normal, also ideal, human relationship) which was penetrated by the spirit of ‘love’ (airen), i.e to love all other human beings. In their schema of ren there was no place for war. Peace should be the basic way of life.

The richest ancient treasury of ideas created by Chinese agroculture is the Book of Change (Yijing, also spelt I-ching), which has two parts. The first part is the 64 gua which the ancients used for divination in the dawn of Chinese civilization (from as early as four or five thousand years ago), while the second part is some supplementary commentaries. For each of the 64 gua, i.e. omens, there is a separate commentary. Conventionally, people think that there could not have been just one commentator. All these commentaries form a cumulative treasury which must have been contributed by wise thinkers during the course of thousands of years, both before and after the time of Confucius.

In the supplementary commentaries there is a famous observation, ‘Tiandizhi dade yue sheng’.2 The English translation of this should be: ‘Sheng (creation) is the grand virtue of the universe (between Heaven and Earth)’. In the commentary to the 31st gua, there is an observation: ‘Tiandi gan er wanwu huasheng, shengren gan renxin er tianxia heping’, and its translation is: ‘When Heaven and Earth interact there is the creation of all beings. When the sages interact with the hearts of the people there is peace in the universe.’

Here I have translated the term heping into peace, but it is a combination of two concepts: he (smooth, harmonious and peaceful) and ping (even, tranquil, just and peaceful). We can see that ‘peace’ is conceived of as the law, the rhythm, the logic of the universe. It is conceived of as the virtue, natural feeling, logical mood of humans.

In the commentary of the first gua, qianyuan (Heaven), there is an observation that the daren or great man merges his virtue with Heaven and Earth, merges his brightness with the sun and moon, merges his rhythm with the four seasons, and merges his good and bad omens with the spirits. This term ‘great man’ is used in the Book of Change in such a manner that we see it as a signification of God. The Chinese term daren (with da meaning ‘great’ and ren meaning ‘person’) comes so near to the ancient Indian concept of mahapurusha.

In the commentary of the second gua, kunyuan, is praised as the creator of all the things and beings. This kunyuan is a reference to our Mother Earth. It is also observed that this Mother Earth interacts with Heaven (tian) in the mood of shuncheng, i.e. obeying and sustaining.

All this makes it clear that in the wisdom of Chinese agroculture, there is only mutual give and take, sustenance, creation, harmony, tranquillity, and peace — there should not be conflict and war.

Confucius, in his Daxue (Great Learning), observed that the learning process began with zhiyu zhishan (to stop at the optimum). He continued: ‘Knowing how to stop will achieve stability. After achieving stability there is tranquillity. After tranquillity there is peace of mind and ease of mood. After acquiring peace of mind and ease of mood one can think and reflect. After thinking and reflection there is achievement.’3

Then, Confucius spelt out the process by which a gentleman could develop his career. First, he should become earnest and sincere; then he should put his heart in the right place; then he should cultivate saintly behaviour; then he should put his family in order; then he should bring his country under a good rule; then he should make the universe a place of taiping.4

Again, there is some difficulty in translating taiping, which is a combination of tai (connoting grand, extreme, etc.) along with ping (connoting even, tranquil, just, peaceful, etc.). In fact, this ping is the same ping which we have just seen in the Book of Change, and Confucius’ taiping and the term heping we have cited earlier from the Supplementary Commentaries of the Book of Change are similar ideas. As I have said earlier, peace was conceived of as the natural law and rhythm of the universe. Now Confucius added a dimension of human dynamism to it. Peace to Confucius was the ultimate goal of human endeavour, in other words.

Our journey starting with the Book of Change to Confucius’ spiritual world has witnessed a shift of emphasis from the fundamental laws of Nature to human endeavour, suggesting that the peaceful nature of the universe had been disturbed, and should be upheld by human endeavour. This shift does reveal the gap between agrocultural idealism and human reality — peace being constantly disturbed by human activities. However, what I wish to emphasize is that to the Chinese agroculture, peace is no secondary reality, and certainly not an afterthought cropping up at the end of the war or conflict.

To the Chinese agrocultural mind, peace is the reality of the universe, the fundamental condition of human existence: not, as the French and other European definitions suggest, an expediency, a temporary arrangement, or a momentary escape from quarrels, conflict and war.

Peace, as the goal of life, the goal of a political regime and political career, has been ingrained in Chinese thinking. From the Han Dynasty onwards, the Chinese emperors took the lead in codifying the ceremonial music played in the imperial court. The literary text of this music is known as yuefu (literally ‘music office’). One Chinese ruler who was very diligent in scripting the court songs was the reigning empress Wu Zetian (624-705), who had the unique distinction to be the only woman who sat in the chair of the ‘Son of Heaven’ (emperor) in Chinese history. In her composition entitled Huangdi xing (song of the emperor), she wrote:

I raise my head to be blessed by the calendar sacred;

I stoop to appreciate glowing tributes of my subjects;

Peace in faraway territory, and solemnity around me;

Society booming, and times in smooth tranquillity;

Power shines from the jade reigning mirror,

Our golden law makes the court free from disputes;

The new ascendance of a majestic ceremony and order;

Spears and shields are forever placed in disuse.5

Known for her Buddhistic inclinations, Empress Wu was using imagery like yujing (jade mirror) and jinke (golden law) that betray the adaptation of Indian (Buddhist) imagery.

When Confucius talked about peace as a goal it was only from the viewpoint of a teacher and a thinker. Empress Wu talked about peace when she was at the head of a powerful military machine. If she was sincere in the words she had penned (the words which were every morning sung at the court ceremony) — and there is no reason to doubt her sincerity — then we can say that peace had gone into China’s ruling ideology in her times and in the subsequent reigns of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).


China would not have been on the map of the modern world if there had not been a great politician and tyrant, Qin Shihuangdi (reigning as the King of Qin state from 246 bc and as the Emperor of the Qin Dynasty from 221 bc till his death in 210 bc). This Qin Emperor unified China by means of war, but wanted to rule his empire in peace. He thought of the best way to ensure peace by asking his subjects to surrender all the weapons in their possession during the first year of his reign. After collecting all the surrendered weapons, he melted them and forged them into bells, and 12 giant human figures to be placed in his palace. However, there was no peace during his reign. He was attacked by many assassins, and narrowly escaped death in 216 bc when he and four guards were attacked by robbers in one of his frequent incognito trips outside the palace at night. He was a powerful ruler who could hold his empire together. The moment he died the entire country rose in arms against his regime, and within a couple of years the Qin Dynasty was overthrown.

From the Qin Dynasty until today the existence of a unified (or semi-unified) China was always first wrought by the use of force, and then by maintaining an enforced peace with the help of a powerful army. In other words, throughout Chinese history, the culture of peace has not been different from the culture of war. Weapons have been used to end war and to start peace, to maintain peace. Then, peace was disturbed and war was started by the use of weapons, and a vicious circle between war and peace has been in motion till today.

Chinese agroculture has to address itself to this dichotomy which has been developed in total contravention of the original rhythm of agroculture. Peace and war, it may be said, have been the twins of Chinese politics, and Chinese agroculture has to try for the best. There have been two sources of war: one internal and the other external.

The internal source of war rose from the very fact that the hierarchical mansion of Chinese politics was built upon the self-imposition of the ruling family by means of conquest, all others having been placed under the threat of military might to obey, and maintain peace and law and order. There were always those who wanted to displace the ruling family and come on top of the political hierarchy. A natural source of war was inbuilt.

The external source of war rose from the fact that agriculture had made China a land of affluence in comparison with the homes of the neighbouring races. Adding to this was the fact that China was virtually the only agrocultural society surrounded by non-agrocultural, nomadic societies. I have said at the outset that the nomadic culture has directly inherited the hunter’s culture. This was noticed by the famous Tang poet, Li Bai (also spelt Li Bo, 701-62), who observed in his famous poem ‘Fighting South of The Town’:

Our neighbours, the Huns, preferred killing to tilling,

The deserts of yellow sands are bleached by skeletons.6

As a result, in half of the last two thousand years, China was ruled by foreign conquerors. Foreign conquest and restoration of Han (Chinese) rule formed another vicious circle of Chinese historical development. Both conquest and recovery were by means of war. War, not peace, became the fundamental rhythm of progress and evolution of Chinese history.

Chinese agroculture has mortgaged peace under the duress of the makers of Chinese history who were either the rulers or the destroyers of the rulers of imperial China. Paradoxically, after destroying those who reigned, the destroyers replaced them and became rulers themselves. Their successors would be destroyed by other destroyers. Ruling by military might and destroying a rule by military might became the fundamental rhythm of imperial China, making it impossible to materialize the originally conceived rhythm of peace and tranquillity.

To view it from a different angle, China would have taken a different turn of development (and may not have become what she is today) if the Qin Emperor had not succeeded in unifying China — in other words, if the rulers of six other states (which were there during the pre-Qin period were vying with the Qin state for supremacy) could have prevented themselves from being vanquished by the Qin emperor. This hindsight was provided by a Song scholar, Su Xun (1009-66) in his famous essay ‘Liuguo’ (six states). Su Xun commented: ‘The six states were vanquished not because of the weakness of their fighting forces. The trouble lay in their appeasement.’ He added: ‘What Qin had gained was a hundred times greater than the fruits of its military victory. What the states had lost was a hundred times greater than their military defeat.’ The six states in dealing with the Qin state (which was the bully), had each tried to appease the aggressor by giving away some territory. This was commented upon by an ancient observer which was quoted by Su Xun as a foolish act, like ‘carrying firewood to fight a fire’.7

The purpose of this essay was to advise the ruler, Song Emperor Renzong (reigning from 1022 to 1063) against adopting an appeasement policy vis-a-vis the aggressive northern neighbour — the Khitan race. Yet it also reflected Chinese intellectual opinion against military conquest of any kind. However, it does not seem to have occurred to Sun Xun that if the Qin regime had not vanquished the six states and unified China, there would not have been the fortune of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), in whose interest he was serving and worrying. There is a dichotomy here, but it is clear that although the Chinese intellectuals have all along been for the stability and strength of their unified motherland, their innate inclination was against military annexation of others’ territories.

It was strange that China’s territorial expansion was achieved under two different circumstances. The first circumstance was a response on the part of Chinese rulers while dealing with pestering aggressive enemies. The Han Dynasty (206 bc to ad 220) originally adopted an appeasement policy towards the Hun race, which could not stop the latter from repeated aggressive acts, including frequent intrusions and looting of Chinese civilian properties. Finally, the Han Emperor Wu (141-87 bc) made a strong determination not only to fight the Huns, but to fight them to the finish — resulting in driving the Huns away from their homeland (in present Mongolia). The second circumstance was when China herself was vanquished by foreign invasion. But the foreign conquerors of China carried on their expansionist policies beyond Chinese territory. It was under the Mongol and Manchu rules that China had the largest territory of all times. After their rules collapsed, the succeeding Chinese governments inherited the expanded territories as godsend. It was paradoxical that never had Chinese troops gone to conquer the homeland of the Mongols. But Mongolia became a part of China — only as a result of China’s having been united with Mongolia by the Mongols.

Chinese agroculture had been pushed to an expansive mood by these two historical circumstances: one reactive, the other passive — never active, let alone pro-active. But, the expansive mood did help Chinese agriculture to achieve a perfect eco-geographic holistic status. We know that China has been heavily dependent on her two major rivers for economic development, i.e. the Yellow River and the Yangtse. While the Yangtse is the fourth largest river of the world (with a length of nearly 6,000 km), the Yellow is the seventh largest (nearly 5,000 km). While no other country in the world possesses the entire length of any of the seven largest rivers on earth, China alone possesses two of them. This is a great gain for China’s agriculture and agroculture, objectively speaking. But she has not gotten it by her own merits or efforts. It is a gift bequeathed by the nomadic cultures (of the Mongol and Manchu).

How do China’s modern ruling elites view this situation? Their views are represented by three modern statesmen, Dr Sun Yat-sen (1866-25), known as the ‘Father of Modern China’, and Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), known as the ‘Father of Communist China’. The third statesman was Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), the lately lamented Chinese supremo who had made post-Mao China a very dynamic phase of history.

Sun Yat-sen not only regarded the international boundaries left behind by the erstwhile Manchu Empire as sacrosanct, but wished that the Manchu, Mongol and other races who had joined the Chinese joint family be integrated with the Han-Chinese majority. His ideal state was the United States of America. However, he was also influenced by the ideas of Confucius, as he observed: ‘We must revive our nationalism and restore our national status so that we can give good order to the country and bring peace to the universe. We must employ our innate morality and peace as the very foundation to unify the world, to achieve the rule of datong (grand tranquillity).’8 Here, Sun Yat-sen made a reference to the idealism of datong which was enshrined in an essay found in Liji (Book of Rites) stated to be the observation of Confucius. The datong idealism reflected in the passage depicts a society in which no one is selfish, and everyone is selfless, working for the good of the collective. There is perfect order in society, and no intrigue, nor robbery, nor theft (so that people can sleep at night without closing their doors). Then, Liji further quotes Confucius to say that such a datong society could exist only when the Tao prevailed. ‘Now that the great Tao is hiding, everyone takes to one’s own family. Everyone endears only his/her parents, loves only his/her children, treating property as his/her own. Thus intrigues and utilitarianism prevail, leading to the breakout of war.’ Such a society was defined as xiaokang, literally ‘small comforts’.9

Interestingly this two-stage social development from xiaokang to datong has become the goal of modern Chinese thinkers. China, in their thinking, has slipped to a state of misery, but the Western societies are in a state of xiaokang. However, Chinese thinkers have been wanting to achieve both — first from misery to xiaokang, then from xiaokang to datong. Deng Xiaoping, who put China on the express highway of development, set a target of a per capita income of US$ 1,000 by the end of the twentieth century. He said in 1987 that ‘when that time comes we call it a xiaokang society — a xiaokang society in which people enjoy a universally enhanced living standard’.10 Though Deng Xiaoping has not made any reference to datong, the mention of xiaokang puts him in the same traditional mind set being personified from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen and beyond.

Mao Zedong openly said that his ides of ‘new democracy’ was the adoption of the new version of Dr Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Three People’s Principles’ (san min zhuyi). He was an ardent patriot like Sun Yat-sen, and his ideal society was communism, as he wrote in 1939: ‘ The ultimate future of Chinese revolution is not capitalism, but socialism and communism.’11 Mao’s thinking that communist society, in which there is no exploitation but only amity and prosperity, conforms to the ancient Chinese ideal of datong.


Idealism and reality do not get along well. The makers of China have gotten all Chinese intellectuals in a situation that amounts to helplessness. While one must obey the tide, there can also be a sort of passive resistance — knowing full well that to fail in fighting for one’s country would be treason. There is a famous poem penned by a Tang poet, Wang Han (687?-726?), which is worth quoting:

Goblet of black jade, I enjoy my delicious grape wine,

There the alarm sounds, I must do battle in another round.

Don’t giggle at me when tipsily I sleep on the battleground,

How many are home-bound since the beginning of time?12

What a comic way with such deep sarcasm and pain in highlighting the eternal dilemma of the Chinese people — many of whom did not return home after contributing to the victories of their country! The moral of the poem is: What difference does it make whether wars are won or lost, since the victors don’t return home in triumph?

There are others who voiced their sharp criticism against the warlike policies of the Chinese imperial government. Li Bai, in his above-cited poem, went on to describe the horrors of war:

Riderless fighting steeds bellow heart-breaking neighs.

Scavenging vultures busy scooping the entrails of the dead,

Carrying their intestines in their beaks,

Feasting heartily atop the lonely trees,

The leftovers they hang on dry twigs.

The poem concludes with these words:

When soldiers die in the jungles,

Shame to the careers of the generals.

Must realize that war is a deadly solution,

Sage rulers reserve it as the last option.13

The third line from the bottom referred to General Wang Zhongsi’s refusal to sacrifice ten thousand lives of his own soldiers, for which he had forsaken a chance of his own honour and decoration. What General Wang did constituted a protest in action against the militant policies of the government.

Another famous anti-war poem was written by Li Bai’s contemporary, the equally famous Du Fu (also spelt as Tu Fu, 712-70), entitled ‘Troops Marching’. The poem protested:

Blood flows like flood on the borderland,

The emperor’s unending desire is to expand.

Du Fu concluded his poem on a sad note:

Don’t you see, dead bones constantly lie

From ancient times to this day in Qinghai

For those who died no one bats an eye.

New ghosts grumble, old ghosts cry,

Rains boohoo, boohoo, and dim the sky.14

Poets could not do much in protest. But they have painted a vivid picture of the tragedies of war. One Tang poet, Chen Tao (812?-85?), wrote about the dead soldiers whose bones lay in foreign lands:

Five thousand braves now miserably lie

Buried in the dust under the alien sky.

The chilly wind makes the skeletons shiver,

Namelessly beside an unknown river.

During spring nights they are still alive

To peep into the dreams of the waiting wives.15

Interestingly, not long after Chen Tao, another poet, Mao Wenxi (who lived in the tenth century), wrote a poem which provided the picture from the wives’ side in their long wait for their husbands’ return from the battlefields. The poem, in the voice of one of the wives, reads:

No, please don’t ask!

At your asking I am alarmed,

To ask is to harm, to add pain in my heart,

Water abounds in the pond in an exuberant spring.

A mandarin-duck chasing its mate in a loving game.


I miss my man whose youth sacrificed in the border,

For a long time I haven’t received his news or letter.16

The culture of peace for the Chinese has now turned out to be a picture of broken families and fractured human bonds. When there was war, those who were not fighting had also to be victimized. A touching depiction of such victimization was depicted by Du Fu in his famous poem ‘Officials of Shihao’. The poet was one night staying in this small village (Shihao) when officials raided a house to take away an old man to the front to replenish the depleted fighting force. The old man fled from the back, climbing the wall. His old wife faced the officials and pleaded with them that already all her three sons had been recruited by the army, and two of them had already been killed. Then the officials saw the daughter-in-law, mother of a new-born baby, and wanted to take her away. Finally, it was settled that the old woman would go to the front in place of her husband. After that the midnight stir was quietened, said the poet:

Then the dark night lengthened its silence without a murmur,

I lay awake to an intermittent sob from the inner chamber.

At daybreak I left the village for my onward journey again,

Was waved farewell by the old man who had remained.17

This poem has revealed the inner weakness of a great empire when its power was at the zenith. Power to be maintained by military might is always weak as this poem shows. Without the military prop, no regime could survive. How could a state be orderly administered, then? The mighty Tang Empire was internally rotten as the following poem (also written by a Tang poet) has disclosed:

Rats who live in the government warehouse

Are fat like cats and have each a big mouth,

Settled so lordly that they don’t run away

Even when the keepers stand at the gate.

Troops in the front have little to eat,

Hungry are the citizens in the street,

Tell me, sirs, where comes all this food

So generously for your greedy brood?18

We know that the rat here is the symbol of the parasitic people who battened on the social wealth of the country. With such bad government at the rear, the soldiers at the front also suffered.

All this made the intellectuals and poets long for the natural rhythm of the universe which was by nature to be a world of peace and tranquillity. Let me now return to this intellectual mood to echo what I have discussed at the outset of this essay.


If I don’t proceed further, the obvious conclusion is that the ‘red-eyed view’ of peace is no exclusive property of European culture. When we hear the angry voices of Li Bai and Du Fu, and the lamentation of Chen Tao and Mao Wenxi, we feel that their eyes were red with fury or sadness. But that was only one mood when Chinese intellectuals looked at current developments. Still, the mainstream of the Chinese intellectual mood has been the longing for a return to peace and tranquillity. Still the green-eyed views have not been eliminated or extinguished.

During the Unesco Conference I selected a Chinese poem to present to fellow participants a different Chinese flavour for the conception of peace. This is a poem which was composed by Su Shi (1037-1101) and in 1082, the third spring of his demotion:

Gentle rays cover

The fluvial waves opaque,

Clouds line up

That distant sky —

What a dim sight.

There stands

My sturdy horse,

The saddle still on its back.

I am intoxicated

About to lie on the turf carpet.

The lovely moon

All over the stream

No, stop your hooves

The jade veneer not to crack.

Let the saddle be my pillow

And the bridge

My bed amidst the willow.

I hear the cuckoo.

The day breaks.

In its spring spirit.

I should add that this poem carries a brief preface which reads: ‘On a spring night, I passed a restaurant by the side of the Qi River. I went in and had food and drink. After that I was a little inebriated, and rode with the moon to a bridge on a stream. I released the saddle and lay down on it for a while. When I woke up with daybreak, I saw the lush sight all over the hills as if I was out of the sentient world. I then composed the poem and wrote it on the pillar of the bridge.19

We see the reference to the sentient world both in the poem and in the preface. There is an unmistakable touch of Buddhist philosophy. In the poem, there first appears the saddle ‘soiled by sentient dust’, and then the saddle is transformed from the instrument of chasing some target to an implement helping relaxation — the pillow. I have used the word ‘sentient’ to translate the original word ‘zhang’ which is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word karmarana — a hindrance caused by retribution. Clearly, the poet was depicting himself as a man in mundane human bondage. Of course, there was a strong desire in the poet to be free from it.

More important is the imagery in the following two lines:

No, stop your hooves

The jade veneer not to crack.

Apparently, he was ordering his horse not to stir the tranquillity of the stream — a tranquillity that had created a ‘jade veneer’ on the clean (unpolluted) water under the moonlight, and this ‘jade veneer’ is the idealism of agroculture.

But there have always been the ‘hooves’ — both during the poet’s time in the eleventh century, and ever after till today. The ‘hooves’ here are the symbol of the hunter’s culture, the culture of human greed, and that of war and conflict. Here, it seems that the poet was conceiving of peace as an escape from war. But he went further:

Let the saddle be my pillow

And the bridge

My bed amidst the willow.

This shows that in the world-view of the poet the hooves are secondary, not any part of the agrocultural world. The true picture of the agrocultural world — the world that was dear to the poet — was what he saw after he woke up: ‘When I woke up with daybreak, I saw the lush sight all over the hills as if I was out of the sentient world.’

Su Shi played an important role in creating and preserving a progressive Chinese agroculture. Beginning his life as an ambitious young man, he succeeded in becoming a high-ranking bureaucrat. But there were ups and downs in his career, which helped him to burn out his ego and greed, to blunt the cutting edge of his ambitions, and to see things with blue eyes, not red. As the Chinese saying goes: Luhuo chun qing, i.e. the colour of the pure fire is blue. Burning impurities makes the fire red and sparking. Only after burning out the impurities will the colour of blue emerge. In his youth, Su Shi did have his red eyes because of ego, greed, envy, anger, etc. burning within his heart. Only when he viewed things with blue eyes could he see the natural peace and beauty which is the fundamental rhythm of the universe.

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi (also spelt as Chuangtze, 369?-286 bc) once remarked: ‘My body does not belong to me. It is a capsule form of Heaven and Earth’. Su Shi paraphrased Zhuanzi’s observation to rhyme:

My body isn’t of me

(But of Earth and Heaven),

I must forsake and forget

Busy feathering my nest.20

In another poem, Su Shi rhymed:

O, those mountain peaks

The other lies behind each

Like folded paintings.

O, the river course bending,

Extended screens unending.

Emperors and their subjects

Have shared the same dream

From times olden till now.

Glorious fame all died out.

Eternal are the mountains,

Clouds move in perfect freedom,

Peaks green under the morning sun.21

I have alluded to the poet’s Buddhist world-view, which once again appears here. It’s all a dream — those glorious careers. What is permanent is the peaceful surroundings of Nature. The moral of the piece: Why strive for the illusory at all?

There is something here about the culture of peace through the Chinese prism. Peace is not something that hides among humans. It would be in vain if we try to find peace from the midst of fame-seekers, fortune-seekers, from the empire-builders, from careerists, from millionaires who knock others out on their way to the top of the world. No, all these have gone astray from the right course of life. They have destroyed the natural rhythm of the universe. What they have achieved is contrary to what the Creator has wished.

Su Shi lived nearly one thousand years ago, hence he still had confidence in the peace and tranquillity of Nature. He was sure that the mountains would always remain green, and the clouds never lost their freedom in wandering among the green peaks.

Let me cite the writings of another Song poet, Wang Guan (late eleventh century), who thought life was an ephemeral phenomenon. He said one would be lucky to live up to 70. In these 70 years, the first 10 were childhood, and the last 10 were those of a ‘muddle-headed old man’. Then, half of the remaining 50 years was taken away by sleep. What should one do in the real span being left over, i.e. 25 years? He replied:

Dui jing qie chenzui, rensheng si lu chui fangcao.

(Let us inebriate heavily in the Natural scenery,

Life is merely a dew fallen on sweet greenery.)22

In another poem Wang Guan rhymed:

There the river lies

A horizontal wave of the eyes;

There the mountain peaks go by

As if all the eyebrows tied.

Man, won’t you tell your destination?

O, yes, to meet those eyes and eyebrows.

Spring has bid adieu without hesitation

And you are leaving all of us just now.

If you catch up with spring while journeying

In the southern country of the Yangtse River

Make sure you stay with her

For ever and ever.23

Here is an exciting if not a melancholy voice in quest of peace — spring being its icon. This peace, as the poet suggests, does not exist among humans, or is forced by humans to bid adieu. But, never mind, one still can try and catch up with it sometime and somewhere in life’s journey. The poet also suggests that peace smiles at the humans in Nature. Rivers are its eyes and mountain peaks its eyebrows. And they beckon to those who are longing for peace.

Such old Chinese poems I have just now cited are worthy of appreciation, but they have lost their modern relevance. Today, humankind has almost lost its confidence in the quest of peace. If there were a World War III, there would be no green mountains left. It is as if humans have embarked on a road of slow suicide till one day they finish off all the symbols and icons of peace on our Mother Earth. When we read these ancient Chinese poems, it is no occasion for nostalgia but a time for appeal, for protest, for demanding a stop to the mad, mad ways of our human species which has grown brighter and brighter in scientific knowledge and other faculties, but duller and duller in self-preservation, in sensing the dangers to human preservation.

Peace and Nature go together in Chinese poetic mood. Su Shi wanted to return to Nature when he was longing for peace. We have another poetic mood to look at Nature as depicted by Mao Zedong in 1936:

Our northern country is a pretty place:

A million square-feet in deep freeze,

Over a hundred leagues one sees snowflakes.

Look at the historic Great Wall,

A dwarf, dwarf, our mighty Nature’s thrall,

And lapping, lapping, the Yellow River

Like a lad in the cradle without a murmur.

Mountain ranges the silver serpents

And tablelands the wax elephants

All race to the Heaven’s embrace.

Still better on a glorious sunny day

When the landscape is decorated in red

Blossoms with an overcoat in snow-white.

The country is such an enchanting bride,

Numberless suitors have wooed with longing eyes.24

Mao Zedong was extremely exhausted at the end of the historic Long March. His revolutionary following had reduced from several hundred thousand to hardly ten thousand men. There was pessimism and blank vision among the rank and file. Yet, Mao wrote in such a mood as if he was descending from Heaven to take the enchanting bride that was China. War (revolutionary war) was his life’s obsession. But it was Nature and the vastness of the earth that gave him strength. If we compare Mao’s poetic words with those of Su Shi, there is something in common despite the entirely different times and moods. The commonness lies in the grand rhythm of Nature. What Mao saw was not just a docile sleepy Nature, but one full of dynamism. Peace, I venture to think, is not just idleness, actionlessness, changelessness. Peace is creation, movement, and dynamism. When humans imbibe all this from Nature, there is progress, there is mental peace as well.

We have seen all kinds of search for peace on the part of Chinese poets, intellectuals — those who cherish Buddhist or Marxist idealism, those who have learnt from their own experiences that human evolution has not progressed in the proper way, and those who might like to put it back on the right track. Such a search reminds me of another famous poem composed by another eminent Chinese scholar, Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), a contemporary of Su Shi. The poem, entitled ‘Music of Tranquillity’, reads as follows:

Where is spring?

In vain I try to trace

And I reach a dead end.

Where is spring?

The reply from the knower I seek

To invite her back to stay.

Where is spring?

Let me ask the oriole.

The bird’s hundred tunes thrill

But I fail to decipher its signals,

It flies away with the gale

Roses left in its trail.25

Like Wang Guan, Huang Tingjian has used the word ‘spring’ as an idealism. This poem obviously shows the poet’s determined quest for it. Today, when we embark on our search for the meaning of peace, for the culture of peace, we are in a similar situation. We are getting nowhere because we are not the makers of the times, because we don’t have the power in our hands — the power which can stop the disturbance of peace and tranquillity, the power which can restore the true nature and rhythm of the universe. I have earlier suggested that the concept of peace is the result of human progression from a hunter’s culture to agroculture. Now, we see that this original concept of agroculture has been mortgaged by the Chinese political development to the extent that it would be very hard to buy it back — to realize the datong society which may for ever remain an illusion. In our modern times, we see agroculture being conquered, flogged, and threatened to extinction by the industrial culture. Today, we have not only lost the true definition of peace, but are made to adopt the French (or English) idea that peace is merely a stop-gap arrangement of cease-fire, merely the absence of war which can return any time. But, even the last poem is not a note of pessimism. As the last line says: there are ‘roses left in its trail’.

I must not leave any impression that I put all the blame for war on industrial civilization. I have shown enough evidence that the Chinese agrocultural tradition has been equally at fault. But, the entire humanity should think of peace as a fundamental rhythm of life and try to safeguard it as we safeguard our eyes. Self-destruction has no virtue, certainly not deserving any congratulation. Yet, what we hear these days are nothing but such congratulations. Pray let us stop such stupidity and play the music of tranquillity. Let us look at things with blue eyes instead of red eyes. Perhaps that can change the perspective on peace.


1. Mengzi (Mencius), ch. 5.

2. Yizhuan (Supplementary commentaries to Book of Change), Pt. 2, beginning para.

3. Daxue (Great Learning), para 1.

4. Ibid.

5. Quan Tangshi (Collected works of Tang poetry), Shanghai: Zhonghua Bookshop, 1950, vol.1, p. 54.

6. Tan Chung, Classical Chinese Poetry, in the Classics of the East Series, Calcutta: M.P. Birla Foundation, 1991, p.131.

7. See Zhongguo lidai wenxuan (Selected essays of different historical times), Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1980, vol. 2, p. 686.

8. See Wu Hsiang-hsiang, Sun Yixian xiansheng zhuan (Biography of Mr Sun Yat-sen), Hong Kong: Far East Book Company, 1982, Vol. 2, p.1654.

9. Liji (Book of Rites), ch.9 (The revolution of propriety).

10. Deng Xiaoping wenxuan (Selected works of Deng Xiaoping), Beijing: People’s Publishing House, vol. 3, 1993, p. 216.

11. Mao Zedong, ‘Zhongguo geming he Zhongguo gongchandang’ (Chinese revolution and Chinese Communist Party). See Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung [Zedong], Peking [Beijing]: Foreign Languages Press, vol. 3, 1967, p. 331.

12. Wang Han, ‘Liangzhou ci’ (song of Liangzhou), see Tan Chung, p. 99.

13. Tan Chung, pp.131-33.

14. Ibid., p.153.

15. Ibid., p. 299.

16. Ibid., p. 339.

17. Ibid., p. 155.

18. Ibid., p. 307, Cao Ye’s poem ‘Guancangshu’ (Rats in the Government Warehouse).

19. See Su Shi, ‘Xijiang yue’ (Moon of the western river).

20. Idem, ‘Lin jiang xian’ (A saint by the river), see ibid., pp. 246-47.

21. Idem, ‘Xingxiangzi’ (The one who burns the incense), in ibid., p. 267.

22. Tan Chung, p. 414.

23. Songci jianshang cidian, p.185.

24. Tan Chung, p. 515.

25. Ibid., p. 411 (with modifications in the translation).


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